The Board of Selectmen Tuesday morning unanimously approved the purchase of a $73,474 lightning detection system from Turf Products Corporation. Superintendent of Parks John Howe presented the request to the board and explained the advantages of this type of system.

"Basically the system will have two lightning detectors. One would be on top of the Saxe Middle School maintenance garage and the other one will most likely be on Irwin House in order to tie it into the town's fiber optic network," Howe said. "The two sensors detect lightning 20 miles away and when lightning, actual lightning, is within 5 miles, it will send out a wireless signal to the horns and lights to tell people to get off the fields because of safety."

Unlike other systems at golf courses and country clubs, this system will detect real lightning strikes whether they are cloud-to-ground or cloud-to-cloud strikes. Other systems simply detect conditions that are optimal for lightning, which can result in false alarms. Horns and lights will be installed at various fields for coaches and athletes to recognize the warnings.

"The strobe lights at each place will continually go off for a half hour after the last detectable lightning within that 5-mile area. What that does is then anybody who comes out to the field 15 minutes after the horn went off, they see a strobe light and we'll need to put up some signs so that people know to leave the field," Howe explained "There will be an all-clear tone after the half hour."

Strobes and sirens will be installed, visible and audible from several locations at the high school, Saxe Middle School, all three elementary schools, Irwin Park, Kiwanis Park and Mead Park. According to Howe, they will not go off after 9:30 p.m.

Howe said the system is advantageous from a liability standpoint because coaches won't have to wonder about weather conditions.

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"It takes the judgement factor out of it," he said. "It takes that liability off of coaches, off of sports group, off of school teams. They will now know exactly when it's time to leave."

"This is a fabulous addition to our parks," Selectman Nick Williams said. "I think it's really important that we educate our public on that because a lot of us play golf and use the fields often."

Town Council member and youth sport coach Tom O'Dea echoed Williams' sentiments.

"Glad to hear it is actual lightning and not the country club system because you don't want to keep running off the field and find out it was a false alarm," O'Dea said.

The selectmen also discussed where the children should go when an evacuation is necessary.

"The problem with sports is that kids have been dropped off. So you have a coach or two coaches with 30 or 40 kids and the sound goes off; we now know it's serious because it's actual lightning as opposed to actual lightning conditions. Where do they go?" Williams asked.

Howe said other towns typically tell them to leave and go home but this was something that would need to be discussed further in terms of what New Canaan would advise. First Selectman Rob Mallozzi advised Howe to arrange a meeting with all the coaches and heads of the sports leagues to discuss those rules.

Selectman Beth Jones had another concern about coaches and athletes who decide not to follow the warnings.

"We know we have some sort of fanatic coaches and athletes out there and I think when you're coming up with the rules and regulations there should be some sort of punishment for ignoring this warning because I'm not sure we can count on all of them to pay attention if they are in the middle of a very exciting game or something," Jones said.

The other selectmen and Howe agreed with Jones and said it was something that would fall under the purview of the field's usage committee.

"When that horn goes off, it's not `OK let's play three more downs' or `let's play another five minutes of the game.' No; it's time to go," Howe said. "The field is closed."

Howe said the Public Works Department hopes to have entire system up and running by July, right before the peak time to lightning strikes.

203-972-4405; pjha@bcnnew.com; twitter.com/pjhancnews